CMA Awards 2018

Ice Cube Talks BIG3, 'Death Certificate' Turning 25 & Kanye's 'Jesus Walks' Being 'One of the Most Radical Songs in Hip Hop'

Amy Sussman/Invision/AP
Ice Cube photographed in New York City on June 20, 2017 to promote the 25th anniversary re-release of his 1991 solo album, Death Certificate.

For Ice Cube, the month of June has been a busy one. 

First, the 48-year-old born O'Shea Jackson netted a new deal with Interscope Records. Then, he re-released his hip hop opus Death Certificate for its 25th anniversary. Later, Cube schooled Bill Maher on the usage of the N-word, after the controversial host carelessly spatted it out on live TV. Lastly, he announced that he's working on the fourth installment from his cult classic Friday series on The Late Late Show.

Oh, not to mention, he celebrated his birthday last Thursday, and recently received a Star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, as well. 

Juggling a slew of responsibilities -- most notably his BIG3 basketball league, which kicks off June 25 -- Cube continues to push through each task effortlessly, even at 8:30 in the morning. Sitting at the center of a conference room in New York City's Conrad Hotel on Wednesday, the prolific wordsmith sat down with Billboard to discuss the debut of his BIG3 basketball league, his favorite studio session from Death Certificate, if he has any regrets about releasing his infamous "No Vaseline" dis track, and why Kanye West's "Jesus Walks" is the most radical song of the new generation. 

June 25 will mark the debut of your BIG3 basketball league. How excited are you? 

I can't wait, man. It's exciting. It's a big deal. Everything has kind of fallen into place with the BIG3. Not easily, but things like getting Brooklyn for our first game here in New York is a good omen to me, because not only has Brooklyn and Barclays [Center] been phenomenal in just helping us out in every way, but this is our first game ever. We haven't gotten this down to a science yet, but it's close, and we got some great people that's helping us with the jump off. So we couldn't be happier to be here in Brooklyn, man. 

Be honest. What were some of the most nerve-wracking moments you dealt with from when you made the announcement of the BIG3 in March up until now? 

S--t, man, seeing if we were gonna get a TV deal. Most first-year leagues don't get a deal, so it wasn't like an automatic guarantee. We were behind the 8 ball a little bit, because of time. We launched in January and [sighs], we planned six months later. Most leagues take a year at least after they've launched to even think about coming out. We just called some stations and they were like, "Yo, our programming for the summers are already booked. We want it, but we don't have any room for it this year. Do y'all want to do it next year?" 

We felt like, "Nah." If we wait, we felt like this idea was so good that somebody was gonna jump us and steal it. It could have even been the NBA. Once we started to contact players and get players signed, our debt was out there about what the league was about. So anybody could have obtained that and beat us to the punch. We couldn't wait. Getting the TV deal was a nerve-wracking thing. 

Then, dealing with sponsors, we felt like we gotta play it smart, because a lot of sponsors want to be down, but they want give us first-year bulls--t deals, or sign us for so many years that we'd be kicking ourselves in year three still signed to this five-year contract, when the league [already] went from here to wherever. So we decided to not sign to anyone throwing out deals. The sponsors were running through the same things -- they were like, "Yo. Y'all late to us. Our money is already spent up for the summer. Next year, we'd be down." So we're like, "Come talk to us next year." 

So this year, we're really dealing with a few sponsors who really came to the table with what we thought was reasonable -- even though we're a first-year league that's never played a game. [Laughs.] We still feel like the value of what we have is worth a better look from a lot of sponsors, but some came to the table with the look. So that was a little bit frustrating, because, you know, time was our only enemy. If we would have had a year, all of that stuff would have been smoothed out. 

You challenged LaVar Ball to make a 4-point shot and in exchange, you would buy 10 pairs of his Big Baller Brand shoes. Did he ever make that call to accept the challenge? 

Nah, I haven't talked to him yet. He accepted the challenge, but we haven't been able to get together to really do it. I know I'm too busy right now, so I'm just gonna end up buying the shoes for his AAU kids. So it's cool. 

I kind of wanted to.. I wouldn't say relieve the pressure, but I know he was getting a lot of flack for his decision, with his son and their shoes. So I just wanted to make it fun, and support, because whether you like what he's doing or not, the man is supporting his son. It's cool just to see a black man really, really supporting his son like that. It's very cool. He got his ways, but I like that. So I wanna support what he's doing. 

Two weeks ago marked the 25th anniversary of your sophomore album Death Certificate. What was your favorite studio session from that project? 

The studio sessions that always pop in my head is two days, and I don't know if they were the best days, but these were the days that pop in my head. It was the day that we were making "Steady Mobbin'." We were at Paramount Studios in Hollywood. It was me and DJ Pooh there. Jinx was there. I remember everybody kind of coming in and out that day.

We were there and it was one of those long sessions and I remember falling asleep on the couch, waking up, and Pooh saying, "Look at this s--t that I added onto the song." It was dope and I was like 'Damn. I like the loop. I wanna add an intro to it.' So he fell asleep, and when he woke up, I had an intro for the song. He was frowning at first, but when the beat dropped, he just went crazy. So I just remember that session. I remember [DJ] Bobcat coming in, loving the song, and everybody kind of adding little pieces to that song to make it good. That was "Steady Mobbin'." 

Then, I remember recording "No Vaseline." I just remember the looks on everybody's faces when I came out the booth, because I didn't tell anybody the rap. When I got in the studio, I told them, "I need to go in the booth right now." I went straight in the booth and just started rapping. When I came out, they were like, "Shhhh!" It was kind of quiet, like something just happened. I don't know who asked me, but somebody said, "You're gonna put that out?" I said, "Yeah, I'm putting that s--t out."

Do you have any regrets about dropping "No Vaseline" today?

I wouldn't say regrets, because I look at music like time capsules. It is what it is, to a certain extent. It's hard to listen to, because I like them dudes. I love Dre, Ren, Yella, and Eazy, and their families and s--t, so it's hard that they gotta hear that s--t. But it is what it is. We can't take it back. 

Because Death Certificate is a standalone classic, do you feel there's an album today that mirrors that project and its message? 

Ah, man, that's hard to say. I think Death Certificate was coming at the end of an era. After '93, you're not getting too many records like that. Probably the next Public Enemy record that was released after Death Certificate, [which was] Muse Sick-n-Hour Mess Age, but you didn't get records like that after that. They weren't as politically charged. They were moreso really dealing with escapism, drinking, smoking, partying, cars, women, drugs, or whatever. [Music] is still kind of in that era. We haven't came out of that.

I think still one of the most radical songs out of this new era of hip-hop is "Jesus Walks" by Kanye West [Laughs] That's the only record that seems totally outside the box of what's the norm for hip hop now. 

I thought your new song "Good Cop, Bad Cop" sounded like a record that could have been blended in with Death Certificate back in '92. 

That's why I put it on the record [reissue]. All those three records ["Good Cop, Bad Cop," "Only One Me" and "Dominate the Weak"] feel like they could have been done back then, which is good. That's good for me, I guess, because most people feel like new records are never as good as the old ones. Period. No matter what you do. So just to have records that even sonically fit that era in a way, but are still new, was the aim. That's the reason why those three songs made it and three other songs didn't make it. 

What's your thoughts on Tupac's All Eyez on Me biopic?

I still haven't seen it yet. 

Did you have any positive expectations based off the trailers, or were you a little bit unsure of the direction? 

You're always unsure, because you never know how [artists'] movies are going to be handled. I've been unsure about every movie, except Straight Outta Compton because I knew what I did was [spot-on]. I was unsure about Ray. You never know how good they're going to be or how much they're going to put into it. I was super hyped about James Brown's [Get on Up] and I love the movie, but I just didn't like how it started. The jump-off wasn't right. It made the whole movie feel like it wasn't right.

So you know, it's hard, man, to be honest. It's just hard to satisfy people when it comes to somebody in that iconic status who people have their own memories of, or views of what Tupac's life was. So when you start showing them stuff that they don't know and it ain't really working with what they think it should be, then you start to lose people. So I can't say anything about the movie, 'cause I haven't seen it, but with the trailers I was curious. Then, I saw longer pieces on making the movie, and it made me more interested in seeing it. Now, I just really wanna see it based on pure curiosity. 

It's been two years since Straight Outta Compton dropped. Looking back on it now, are there any changes you would make to the film?

Of course, there's things you would add that we ended up shaving off because of time. I think it could have used five minutes of breathing room in certain places -- but that's because I already know what's not there. I think we shaved some things just trying to get time down, and I don't think you make a movie like that. I think you let a movie flow and go how it's supposed to go, and not shave it because you're trying to keep it under a certain time limit. It's a trip, because that same exec [who said to edit it originally] told me [later] that we should have just left it alone. We should have let y'all do what y'all wanted to do. It wouldn't have mattered. [Laughs]

Being a veteran in hip hop, which three rappers today would have survived in the '90s?

I don't wanna use "survive," because dudes are hot. It reminds me of Golden State versus Showtime Lakers. It's like, these dudes are good because they were able to watch us, anyway. So like, [Lil'] Wayne, Kanye [West] and Kendrick [Lamar]. All the dudes that are doing it now would have been able to do it back then. 

Same style and all?

I think so. I think some of their styles were refreshing at the time. I remember when Kanye and 50 had the contest on who was going to sell the most records. That's when I think people realized how many normal people we got in the world who wasn't trying to be a gangsta -- because at the time, when that little contest came out, people thought everybody wanted to be a gangsta. I think Kanye showed that some of these college kids, or kids that didn't stay in colleg,e wanna make it and still do it without going all the way gangsta. 

It was kind of cool to see that hip-hop wasn't stuck in just a mold, which I had thought it was. I thought it was stuck in this gangsta mold that it couldn't get out of, but Kanye let us out. 

When we last spoke in March, we touched on Chris Tucker's reluctance to take part in another Friday movie. Have you spoken to Chris about joining the crew since then?

We've spoken. I don't wanna put words in Chris's mouth, but we have spoken about it. That's all I'm going to tell you. 

Was he at least receptive to the idea?

We spoken about it! [Laughs.] That's all I can really say, because I just know we gotta do something that he likes. That's really on us to do that. 

Do you cater to him, or everybody else that comes back?

We cater to Friday. We cater to the franchise, the movie, and what we think it should be. I'm not saying that this is the last one. I'm just saying we're doing Last Friday. You never know. We might get back on a roll again. We just gotta make this one good. That's all I care about. Making it good and making the fans happy. I hope at the same time, that we can make Chris happy but my dedication has always been to the fans of the franchise.

With last week being your birthday, if you could title this chapter of your life, what would it be and why?

I would call it "Building Blocks." 

Why "Building Blocks"?

Because that's what I'm doing. I'm building blocks. It's like I'm building a foundation for more entertainment. So it's just part of what I plan to do until I die -- it's to keep creating cool stuff that'll hopefully be here when I'm gone. You gotta make your mark on the world and let them know that you were here. So I'm always going to be in this phase. Hopefully, I'll be celebrating something that I built, while I'm building something new.